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3 Mar 2003 : Column 629—continued

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): I apologise to the House for perhaps having to leave before the anticipated end of the debate for a constituency-related matter.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made a number of cogent points, particularly in relation to what he called the failure of lateral thinking and the misjudgments made by the services. To put that in context, one must recognise what the Foreign Secretary said—that hindsight is a wonderful device for 20:20 vision—and the comment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) that the task involves joining up dots in intelligence, often in a multidimensional situation where there are enormous difficulties and where one can easily get it wrong.

I will not follow the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed in another respect. Perhaps because he is a member of the Committee, he was rather coy about blowing the trumpet of his own Committee. On behalf of the House, may I say that the Intelligence and Security Committee has done a grand job? My right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury has acquitted herself and the Committee extremely well. I am mightily impressed with the speed of the Committee's response. The House will recall that the outrage in Bali occurred on 12 October. On 21 October, the matter was referred to the Committee by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. The report was published on 11 December, which suggests very fast Committee work. The Government's response was made last month. All the key questions were asked by the

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Committee, and the criticism relates to tone and the emphasis that was made in very difficult circumstances. Clearly, the terrorism threat is real throughout the world. We aware that in Indonesia, for example, the US, which had access to the same intelligence as us, had several members of its Jakarta embassy in Bali at the time. The scale of the threat as seen through US official eyes was not all that great.

I shall not concentrate on the intelligence aspects of the situation. Even though the Foreign Affairs Committee requested the information, we were not given access to the intelligence side, but travel advice generally is four-square in our remit. Indeed, the Committee has taken that responsibility very seriously. It recognises that a core responsibility of the Government, and hence one of its own core responsibilities in scrutinising them, is the safety of British personnel overseas. As I mentioned, that includes not only tourists, but personnel in our embassies. I also said earlier that, as a result of excellent co-operation between our intelligence services and the Greek intelligence services, we hope that all key members of the 11 November terrorist group in Greece who were responsible for the murder of our defence attaché, Brigadier Saunders, have now been apprehended. That trial starts today. It is to British tourists, a vast number of whom can now travel overseas, that the ISC report is especially pertinent.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has learned a number of lessons from Bali. In the judgment of the Foreign Affairs Committee, it is taking its work extremely seriously. We referred to the problems that have arisen in our report on the annual report of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and on 4 February we had a serious discussion in public session with Sir Michael Jay, the permanent secretary of the Foreign Office. I hope that we are not a mutual admiration society. The Foreign Office has certainly faced the sting of the Committee's criticism in a number of inquiries, not least in respect of Sierra Leone in the previous Parliament and of Gibraltar in the current one.

I believe that we have worked together particularly closely in respect of Bali. We received today a letter of commendation from the permanent secretary on our work. I reciprocate to this extent: we are pleased that, partly in response to our recommendations and those of the ISC, the Foreign Office has recognised that travel advice needs a higher profile. It has revised all the 209 travel advisory notices on its website and responded to the comments made by both Committees about the fact that travel advice should be more user-friendly and understandable. It has worked with the Plain English Campaign and is open to constructive comments from us and the general public on how travel advice can be improved.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, among others, has referred to the need to ensure that advice given on the spot is consistent with advice given in London. Hence, a new mechanism has been agreed whereby if a post wants to change advice, the information can come straight back through the geographical department in London. That means that any relevant changes should pass very quickly through the travel advisory unit and on to the website. The FCO website also has a new icon on the risk of terrorism when travelling abroad and lists the countries where terrorist attacks have occurred.

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When the Foreign Affairs Committee prepared for its meeting with Sir Michael Jay, we carried out a comparative survey of the advice given by several countries to their nationals. We looked at the website of the US State Department, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in respect of one country—Saudi Arabia. We concluded that the FCO website compared very well indeed with those of other countries. Of course, it is important that, as the result of advice that came in part from the Opposition Front Bench, the FCO has created a link between its website and those of other countries.

The problem is how to respond constructively and realistically when intelligence is received about an impending terrorist attack, because of the volume and varied nature of the pieces of information that are received daily. If there is a serious threat, the FCO has to make the best judgment on the basis of the available information. The Committee was interested to learn in its evidence session with Sir Michael Jay that Ministers are consulted daily on changes to travel advice.

We also recognised the sensitivities regarding friendly countries when advice is received that can impact adversely on their economies. Two recent examples have arisen in that regard. First, the Government changed their advice in respect of Mauritius in November last year because the US embassy had received specific warnings about possible attacks on churches or other public places there and had posted a local warning to its nationals. Our high commission in Port Louis took the warning seriously. On 19 November, the Mauritius Foreign Minister wrote to the Foreign Secretary expressing concern that Mauritius had been placed among risky tourist destinations.

Secondly, a similar complaint was received from Trinidad and Tobago about what had happened as a result of intelligence information received in relation to a terrorist threat. In January or early February, the Trinidad Foreign Secretary was sent to London for urgent consultations with our Foreign Office because various tourist liners had been diverted as a result of the warning that we had issued. Quite properly, the permanent secretary told the Committee that the paramount duty of the Foreign Office is to our citizens. Although there may be occasions when quiet discussions should take place with friendly countries, that must be subordinate in any situation to the interests of British nationals.

The events in Bali also led to wider and more welcome changes in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Affairs Committee raised in our comments on the FCO annual report the question of the rapid response unit, which is potentially a very important development. We recommended

That recommendation related to transportable diplomatic premises. We also recommended that there should be

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The Foreign Office responded to that recommendation on 29 January. In respect of rapid deployment teams, in our report on the 2002 FCO annual report the Committee recommended that

In its 29 January response, the Foreign Office informed us that it had

As a result of Bali, welcome changes have been made. The 24-hour "situation centre" will become effective in the summer, and the Foreign Office is looking at the out-sourcing of caller answering services. Only today, on behalf of the Committee, I received a letter from the permanent under-secretary saying that the Foreign Office was considering establishing web-based databases

That will enable a more speedy and effective response to be made.

There is a continuing dialogue between the Foreign Office and the Foreign Affairs Committee on this important issue. We asked, for instance, why there were no medical advisers on the rapid deployment teams, and the Foreign Office gave us an interim reply. I assure the House that we take our responsibility for scrutinising the Foreign Office's oversight of the concerns of British nationals overseas very seriously. We are united in trying to counter, as best we can, the scourge of terrorism, and seeking to improve the position of those British nationals.

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